An artificial underground cavity usually used for the storage of water. Cisterns, unlike wells that are dug down to tap natural underground water, are usually designed to catch and retain rainfall or the runoff from springs. Not open like pools, they are usually covered over at the top. The Hebrew word bohr, rendered “cistern,” is also translated “waterpit,” especially when it appears to be empty of water (Gen. 37:20-29; 2 Sam. 23:20), as “prison hole” when used for that purpose (Gen. 40:15), and as “pit” when it refers to or is in parallel with “Sheol.”—Ps. 30:3; Prov. 1:12; Ezek. 31:14, 16.
Cisterns were vital in Biblical Palestine. Frequently they were the only means of maintaining a sufficient water supply, because wells and springs were not plentiful in the mountainous country and, where found, often dried up toward the end of summer. These man-made water cisterns even permitted villages to spring up in places where the water supply was otherwise too scant, such as in the Negeb. Assuringly, Jehovah promised his people that they would find cisterns already dug when they entered the Promised Land. (Deut. 6:10, 11; Neh. 9:25) King Uzziah is mentioned as hewing out “many cisterns” throughout all Judah. (2 Chron. 26:1, 10) From upper Galilee down to the Negeb, cisterns numbered literally in the thousands, and multitudes of them have been discovered, practically honey-combing parts of the terrain. It seemed the desirable thing for each household to have its own cistern, even among the Moabites. Their tenth-century-B.C.E. king Mesha, according to the Moabite Stone, declared: “There was no cistern inside the town at Qarhoh, so I said to all the people, ‘Let each of you make a cistern for himself in his house!’” (Ancient Near Eastern Texts, 1955, p. 320) Sennacherib attempted to entice the inhabitants of Jerusalem by promising that if they capitulated to him, they would “drink each one the water of his own cistern.”—2 Ki. 18:31; Isa. 36:16.
Cisterns were most commonly hewn out of rock. If the rock was solid and without cracks, there was little problem with leakage, but in the porous limestone that covered much of Palestine, it was necessary to waterproof the inside walls with plaster. Cisterns dug in earth were lined with brick or stone and then plastered to give them solid walls. These cisterns were commonly pear-shaped, wider at the bottom and narrowing at the top; sometimes the mouth was only a foot or two across. When natural caves were modified or enlarged to serve as cisterns, pillars of native rock were allowed to support the roof, or, as in some of those discovered in the Negeb, arches were built inside the cistern to serve the same purpose. Channels in the hillside directed the runoff from rainfall into the underground reservoir. Illustrating the great size of some cisterns, one of several in the temple area in Jerusalem had a capacity of between two and three million gallons (c. 7,500 to 11,300 kiloliters); it was over 40 feet (12 meters) deep and 700 feet (213 meters) in circumference, and was fed by an aqueduct from Solomon’s pools.
Ecclesiastes 12:6 refers to “the water wheel for the cistern,” but usually the water was drawn up by means of jars suspended with ropes. Occasional breakage of such jars accounts for the pottery fragments that are found in the bottom of most cisterns. The primitive custom of throwing earth in a cistern having stagnant or polluted water in order to settle the scum explains in part why many are partially filled with dirt. Coverings over the openings guarded to some extent against contamination of the water, and prevented persons or animals from falling in, although a dead body that might accidentally fall in did not make the waters ceremonially unclean; the one removing the dead body, however, was unclean. (Ex. 21:33; Lev. 11:35, 36) Additionally, the cover on a cistern aided in keeping the water cool and reduced loss from evaporation. (Jer. 6:7) Some large cisterns had several openings from which the water was drawn. In cisterns of great size and depth, stairs led down into them as much as a hundred feet (30 meters) or more.
There are a few instances where cisterns were used for purposes other than water storage. In dry locations, and if sealed against moisture, rats and insects, they were fine storage areas for grain, being also easily camouflaged against thievery; some cisterns found in terrain where there is no natural source of water were apparently built especially as granaries. Empty cisterns were sometimes employed as prisons. (Zech. 9:11) Joseph’s brothers threw him into such a waterpit (Gen. 37:20-24), and later he found himself in a similar prison hole (literally, “the cistern”) down in Egypt. (Gen. 40:15; 41:14) The tenth plague on Egypt reached “to the first-born of the captive who was in the prison hole [literally, “the house of the cistern”].” (Ex. 12:29) Jeremiah was imprisoned in “the house of the cistern,” and later was thrown into the miry pit itself. (Jer. 37:16; 38:6-13) Once when the Israelites were fleeing from the Philistines, some hid themselves in the cisterns (waterpits), and on another occasion, Asa’s large cistern became a burial tomb for seventy bodies. (1 Sam. 13:6; Jer. 41:4-9) Because of their permanent nature, some cisterns served as geographical markers.—1 Sam. 19:22; 2 Sam. 3:26; 2 Ki. 10:14.
In two noteworthy passages, “cistern” is used figuratively, Jehovah says that people who have forsaken him to worship false gods have actually left “the source of living water, in order to hew out for themselves cisterns, broken cisterns, that cannot contain the water.” (Jer. 2:13) Solomon, admonishing marital fidelity, said: “Drink water out of your own cistern.”—Prov. 5:15.